University system asks for $14.5M

UMaine students pass between buildings along Long Road on the Orono campus during the 2 pm class change Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
UMaine students pass between buildings along Long Road on the Orono campus during the 2 pm class change Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. Bangor Daily News/Michael C. York
Posted Sept. 13, 2010, at 3:53 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — University of Maine System officials say they need an extra $14.5 million from the state over the 2012-2013 biennium or they will be forced to increase systemwide tuition by 5 percent.

Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor for finance and administration, presented the budget request Monday to the board of trustees, which voted to approve that request.

The $14.5 million over two years represents a 4 percent increase from the 2011 appropriation from the state to the UMaine system but comes at a time when state finance officials are expected to trim nearly $1 billion in expenses.

“I don’t know that they will approve this increase, and we certainly understand the difficulties the state is facing,” Wyke said in an interview after the trustees’ meeting. “But it’s important as advocates for higher education to make the case.”

She explained that the increase would not pay for new programs but for current operations, which already have been scaled back as a result of a lengthy review process conducted last year. Aside from reducing the number of full-time system employees by about 6 percent, the seven universities in the UMaine system eliminated some programs and negotiated union contracts to include no adjustments for cost-of-living.

“We believe we’ve done work to show we’re controlling costs on our end,” Wyke said.

She cautioned, however, that there is still plenty of time for the budget to be altered depending on revenue projections and also said a lot could depend on which candidate is elected governor in November.

“I’m glad they made the request as they see the need. It’s nice to know what they feel the state should do if we had the money,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. “But the reality says they should probably have a backup plan, too.”

The requested increases would bring the University of Maine System’s state appropriation to $183.5 million for the 2011-12 academic year and $190.9 million for the next one. The budget request includes a $1 million increase in research and development funding in fiscal year 2012 and an additional $1 million in fiscal year 2013 for the Maine Economic Improvement Fund. Researchers at Maine’s public universities use this funding to leverage additional federal and private dollars to fund university-based research projects.

The system’s request assumes static enrollment during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years and assumes a 3 percent increase in tuition. Wyke said the tuition increase would be increased to 5 percent if the state aid requests were not approved.

“We can’t go beyond a 5 percent increase. That’s not doable for Maine families,” she said.

Even a 5 percent tuition increase would be lower than recent past increases of 8, 9 and 10 percent, Wyke said.

Diamond said he understands the importance of keeping tuition costs down. The state has faced the same problem on K-12 education funding and has continually fallen short of its promise to fund 55 percent of local education.

“The same argument can be made for a lot of agencies. They all have valid arguments. Our job is to balance as much as possible,” Diamond said. “But there are still a lot of variables so we hope people aren’t panicking yet.”

The longtime legislator agreed that the philosophy of the next occupant of the Blaine House could play a big role in numerous appropriation requests.

“It’s easy to say we need to cut, cut, cut, but the budget requires a little more sophistication than that,” Diamond said.

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